Journey to the ring

On a Wednesday night in November 2019, Timothy Hudson bought a bred Yorkshire gilt from an online auction. The $1,100 purchase wasn’t an easy or cheap decision for the 15-year-old to make on his own. But it was an investment that, along with some hard work, would pay.

The Cassville High School sophomore was empowered by the support of his parents, Tracy and David, and his FFA advisors, John Littlefield and Jimmy Hinson. The ag teachers had even helped Timothy acquire a grant to purchase the gilt for his FFA career development experience.

Timothy would soon need more assistance from his FFA advisors. The pig named Penelope was due to give birth around Jan. 1, and it would be the first farrowing experience for the Hudson family. They found themselves huddled around Penelope in the barn early one cold Saturday morning as the piglets started arriving. The first one was dead.

“The first baby wasn’t fully formed,” Tracy said. “We didn’t know what we were doing and thought something was really wrong. We called Mr. Littlefield at 3 a.m., and he came right over. She labored for a long time, but the rest were okay.”

Penelope gave birth to 19 piglets over the course of two days and ended up raising 12 of them. Timothy and his younger brother, Lucas, 11, are now competing in show rings across the state with her offspring, earning numerous awards that included a grand champion boar and two grand champion gilts this past year.

“How well the pigs do depends on you,” Tim­othy said. “If you do poorly in the ring, that’s not their fault. If you don’t go out and walk them every day, that’s on you. You have to be able to control them. To do that, you have to have a relationship with them where they listen because they know you respect them. Since we’ve raised these from piglets, we definitely have that relationship.”

When he saw big brother Timothy competing and winning with his show pigs, Lucas wanted to get in on the action. His love for animals is clearly evident.

“All year, I watched him show pigs,” Lucas said. “I decided I want to do this, too.”

Timothy knows he’s setting the example for his little brother. Every day, Timothy wakes up earlier than he wants to and checks on the pigs. Neither he nor Lucas will eat breakfast until the pigs do. Before heading off to school, the brothers make sure the animals have water and food and haven’t injured themselves or gotten scratched up during the night. After school, Timothy attends basketball practice, and then it’s back home to check on the pigs again.

“I just do whatever needs to be done,” he said. “I came home the other day, and one of the pigs snapped the entire wall. She ripped the whole fence off, so I had to fix it, just things like that. It’s a job.”

After the pigs are taken care of and his schoolwork is finished, Timothy might have free time to hang out with friends.

“It’s definitely taught me responsibility,” he said. “But I couldn’t have done any of this without help. My teachers and everyone around me have always pushed me to do my best.”

Timothy is part of the Cassville FFA program, which has roughly 150 members and a variety of program opportunities. Hinson and Littlefield advise nearly 200 students district-wide when they incorporate middle-schoolers into that mix.

Both teachers attend numerous livestock shows with their chap­ter members.

“We help them manage their projects throughout the year,” Hinson said at the Missouri State Fair in August. “Then, this is the culmination, the result of all their work. It’s awesome to help kids learn responsibility and management and put the things we learn in class to use in a hands-on application.”

Back at home, the advisors practice what they preach. Hinson has a son and a daughter who exhibit pigs of their own, and both men help house animals for students who don’t have their own facilities. They also work with MFA Livestock Specialist Greg Davis to ensure all the ani­mals are getting proper nutrition.

Davis wholeheartedly rec­ommends Ring Leader for that proper nutrition. Ring Leader is MFA’s branded show feed, which is formulated with Shield Technology, MFA’s proprietary blend of essential oils and other additives designed to improve animal health and performance without the use of antibiotics. Shield also helps reduce stress in show animals, Davis said.

“Ring Leader is a top-notch feed, based on MFA’s Evolution swine feeds,” he said. “We have taken those formulations to the next level with specialized proteins and quality products added for performance to get the extra shape and bloom on the pigs while still protecting their immunity with our Shield Technology. We wanted to develop a feed that would take these kids’ projects from just being in FFA or ag class to getting that champion ribbon.”

Hinson said he fed another brand of feed for years, but when the manager at the local MFA asked him to try Ring Leader, he took the opportunity and hasn’t looked back.

“Greg has been very helpful,” Hinson said. “He’s the first feed rep that I’ve experienced who has actually made the effort to come out and do projects with us. He’s been out to all of the farms of our students who are raising pigs and offered advice and moral support to the kids.” The relationship makes a big difference for the busy ag teachers, Littlefield added.

“The customer service we get with MFA is bar none, the best we’ve ever had with any feed dealership,” he said. “That means a ton when you’ve got an issue or an animal that’s not feeding out quite right. I can call, text or email Greg, and he gets back to me instantly with an answer or guid­ance. That’s huge for us.”

That service is one reason why Littlefield and Hinson recommend Ring Leader to their students, and it’s also why Missouri State Fair Swine Show Judge Brandon Spears uses the MFA feed on his own farm in Hartshorne, Okla.

“We farrow 20-25 sows, and my three children show the pigs raised at Spears Farms,” he said. “We have had great results with the MFA Ring Leader feed line.”

To name a few highlights, in the past two years, his son, Braylon, exhibited the Champion Poland Gilt and fourth overall gilt at the Team Purebred Southwest Regional in Chickasha, Okla. Spears’ daughter, Railey, showed the Re­serve Champion Poland barrow at the same show. They also took home champion honors in the Oklahoma Youth Expo, including fifth overall cross barrow. At the Arkansas- Oklahoma State Fair in Fort Smith, Ark., the Spears family showed the Reserve Grand Champion. All of these pigs were fed Ring Leader.

Spears, who also teaches agriculture at Wilburton FFA in Oklahoma, grew up raising pigs and competing in swine shows with his family from a young age. In August 2020, he made the six-hour drive to Sedalia, Mo., to judge the youth swine show at the Missouri State Fair. The Cassville FFA chapter sent 15 of their own students, including Timothy, to show at the event.

“I was honored when I was asked to judge for the Missouri State Fair,” Spears said. “I enjoy working with kids, and any time I get to share my advice and meet good people and good families, I’m happy to do it. The livestock industry is very family-oriented and teaches young people many life skills.”

When judging, Spears said he looks for overall balance in the animal.

“First and foremost, I am looking for pigs that are structurally correct and functional on their feet and legs. It starts there,” he said. “I want to see pigs that have the right kind of proportion­al muscle shape, width and rib shape, those that are stout in terms of bone and foot size, and those that maintain look and extension. The overall freshness of the animal’s presentation is very important to me as well. Our winners are the ones that put as many of those positive traits together.”

Nutrition and daily care are big factors in gaining that com­petitive edge, Spears said. He was introduced to Ring Leader in 2018 through friend and MFA’s national livestock sales manager, Tom Lattimore.

“The reason I started feeding MFA Ring Leader at Spears Farms was the confidence I have in Tom,” Spears said. “Genetically, show pigs have different backgrounds and different needs when feeding and preparing for show day. The MFA Ring Leader line offers diversity for each pig’s needs based on what you are trying to accomplish.”

Performance and palatability of the feeds have been consistently good, he added.

“We first see the palatability of the feed when we introduce the Ring Leader Starter 1 Micro Pellet to our 21-day-old baby pigs,” Spears said. “Then, as those pigs started to transition and develop, Ring Leader offers different stages of feed for that growth.”

Timothy said he also understands the importance of good nutrition for his show pigs. Based on his teach­ers’ recommendation, he also feeds Ring Leader.

“If you don’t give the pigs what they need, they’re not up to standard, and right now the standard at shows is pretty high,” Timothy said. “The first thing you notice when you go into the ring is the pig that looks the best and the pig that looks the worst. The pig that looks the worst is always too fat or too skinny. You can just see the difference good nutrition makes.”

Penelope wasn’t Timothy’s first pig. He began his show career with one he purchased a year earlier at a sale held in the meat barn at the state fair. But his latest sow has set him on a path toward a future in and out of the show ring. Now 16, Timothy aspires to grow what started as a simple FFA project.

“I’d like to go to the College of the Ozarks for genetic engineering,” Timothy said. “They have a giant swine barn, and the program is hands-on. I’d like to eventu­ally expand on what we’ve started here, breeding show animals.”

He and his parents are talking about how to bol­ster his project and prepare for that future. Timothy has formed a business and sold several pigs. He’s also talking about selling pork at farmer’s markets in addi­tion to his breeding program.

“I think it would be cool if I could make a big name of myself, like some of the other well-known breed­ers,” he said. “But if not, I’m fine with operating a little hometown farm, raising good pigs.”

Timothy shuffles through his box of almost innu­merable show ribbons, evidence that he knows what it takes to be successful.

“I think I’m definitely competitive,” he said. “I play sports too, so I know what it takes to be good at something. You have to practice. You have to put in the work. You have to be at home working with your animals, and they have to trust you.”

To reiterate that point, Davis offered up a simple life lesson.

“Champions aren’t made in the ring. They’re made right here,” Davis said, paraphrasing a quote by former boxer Joe Frazier. “They just prove themselves in the ring, and sometimes that champion isn’t always the animal you show. It’s you.”

For more information on Ring Leader Feeds, contact your local MFA Agri Services or AGChoice location to be put in touch with a livestock specialist or visit online at www.mfa-inc.com/feed.

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